Shanghai xiaolongbao

28 Dec

Ever since I tried the delicious xiaolongbao at Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung in Shanghai in December 2007, I’ve been hooked, and searching for another little bundle of goodness just like it. Thankfully Din Tai Fung opened a branch in Sydney so I know where to find them at home. But coming back to Shanghai, where the steamed bun is from, I knew I’d be able to find them on most menus and satisfy my cravings for them. Although they look like dumplings, they are actually a steamed bun – or baozi – made traditionally in small bamboo steamer baskets…xiaolong means small steaming basket. Although not all of them are necessarily soup dumplings, the xiaolongbao I was on the lookout for have a delicious hot soupy stock inside them which fills your mouth when you bite into it.

They are pinched at the top before being steamed, so are circular-shaped, while jiaozi are mostly made from round pieces of dough and folded in half, making them crescent-shaped. They are often filled with pork, but other meats, seafoods and vegetarian options are also found.

Part of me was happy to accept xiaolongbao for what they were, not needing to know the secret to getting piping hot soup inside an encased skin. But my interest in food and curiosity got the better of me and I eventually read how they are created by wrapping solid meat aspic inside the skin with the meat filling. Steam and heat melts the gelatine-gelled aspic into a soup, thus creating the perfect ooze of soup followed by meaty bits when you eat it.

But a warning for those who like to dig into their food quickly – these little morsels can be dangerous if you decide to gobble them as soon as their steamy goodness is placed in front of you at the table. I have scalded my mouth more than once by not being patient enough for them to cool down. At Din Tai Fung they recommend putting the bun on a soup spoon, nibbling a little of the skin until the soup oozes out into the spoon. You then suck out the soup and then devour the rest of the filling and skin, along with vinegar and finely sliced ginger.

Crab roe xiaolongbao

In Shanghai, back to celebrate Christmas this year, we made a beeline for the Nanxiang Bun Shop at the Yu Gardens. People line up for ages to buy their takeaway xiaolongbao, or they head upstairs to the restaurant to pay a little extra and have them delivered to your table. Perhaps xiaolongbao are something people the world over will line up for – we also have to at Din Tai Fung in Sydney, but the wait is so worth it, especially watching the chefs make the buns through the open kitchen window. Nanxiang is a town near Shanghai where the buns were meant to have been invented (thankyou Nanxiang-ren!!!).

For the uninitiated and unfamiliar with eating the xiaolongbao it can be an interesting experience watching as they take their first bites – with soup sometimes streaming out because they pierce the skin with their chopsticks before it even leaves the basket, or the soup spurting out either onto your clothes or the face of your dining companion opposite. I reckon I’ve got my technique down pat though, and am able to gently pick up the bun, have a little nibble and suck the soupy juicy goodness out before the rest of it. During my stay in Shanghai I tried numerous xiaolongbao, all which were delicious and exciting to eat.

This isn’t just me raving about something – I’ve read the Shanghai government has put the xiaolongbao on a list of the city’s “protected traditional treasures”, and along with a stroll along the Bund, is something I believe that needs to be experienced while in Shanghai.
I like the NYT food blogger Daisann McLane’s description of eating good xiaolongbao: “It was like eating matzo ball soup, inside out”. I love matzo ball soup too!

But now I’m back in Beijing, and short of going to Din Tai Fung here (which is actually quite pricey), I’m trying to find a Shanghai restaurant where I can eat them. Or perhaps even find them in the frozen section of my local Wu Mart, if it’s possible to cook them frozen. That would be heaven for me.


3 Responses to “Shanghai xiaolongbao”

  1. JT @areyouhungary January 20, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    Totally possible to cook them from frozen, they even sell frozen ones in Sydney so I’m sure you’ll be able to find top quality frozen ones in China!

    • thehungrytravellers March 15, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

      I’m very excited to hear they sell frozen ones in Sydney! The frozen dumpling section in my local supermarket in Beijing is a little daunting with the sheer quantity and type of dumplings on offer – I must admit I haven’t found any yet here. But I’ll keep looking!


  1. Din Tai Fung « thehungrytravellers - April 6, 2011

    […] In our last post about xiaolongbao, we referred to them as buns…but Din Tai Fung calls them dumplings. Frankly, they are so good we […]

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